Stage kids have a way of stealing scenes, hearts and minds—of everybody, that is, but their adult co-stars. Yet when New Yorker Jeffrey Bravin, 9, made his tour de force debut in last weekend’s CBS movie And Your Name Is Jonah, about a deaf boy’s isolation, the cast, including Sally Struthers, became his biggest fans. “I fell madly in love with him,” says Sally, who played his TV mom and still corresponds with him months later. Adds director Richard Michaels: “With Jeff I’ve discovered the difference between hearing and listening.” Michaels is speaking not of the script but of the boy’s own life: Jeff is the fourth generation of the Bravin family to be born deaf.
Jeff’s parents—Judy, who just got her M.A. in special education from New York University, and Phil, a projects manager for IBM—realized that their son and his two siblings would be born with hereditary deafness. “We just don’t consider it a serious problem,” says Judy (using hand signs). Jeff started going to the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens when he was 7 months old. He began “to learn and use sign language” three months later and to indicate simple words at 2. Now, sitting in the playroom of his comfortable Staten Island home, Jeff points out, “Jonah was different from me. He had hearing parents and wasn’t able to communicate. I have deaf parents and can.”
Jeff was cast as Jonah only after cross-country interviews with other deaf children. Then Bernard Bragg, a founder of the National Theatre of the Deaf, remembered the sandy-haired boy who had complimented him on a speech he had given at school in 1976. “I picked Jeff,” says Bragg, “because he has a sensitive face, which I think is necessary for film.” The frustration, anger and loneliness Jeff projects on TV are a credit to his natural acting talent—he had only a one-week cram course with coach Bragg before shooting in New York and L.A. The most difficult time for the youngster was being strapped to a stretcher for two and a half hours for an emotional scene in a hospital. (Like many deaf children, Jonah was misdiagnosed as mentally retarded—for four years.) “I broke seven straps,” he recalls, “and was dripping wet.”
An excellent student and athlete, Jeff enjoyed being a TV star yet accepts the unlikelihood of making it in acting. But he will not be forgotten. Says director Michaels: “This has been the most extraordinary experience in communication I have ever had.”